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When I met Valerie Kanavy, she looked the part of a Victorian lady, elegant in a floor length dress with a bustle, long gloves, and a hat with a wide brim. She had just returned from a costumed event to
benefit a handicapped riding organization near her Florida home. Petite, blond,
and physically restrained by her ornate garb, she didn't exactly look like a highly
disciplined world-class athlete who has competed all over the world. But that's
exactly what she is.
Where did Valerie's passion for horses come from? That's a mystery. The oldest of six children, she was not exposed to horses or even Westerns as a youngster. Her family didn't have a TV; her working-class
parents didn't know anything about horses -- her mother, she remembers, was
downright afraid of them -- and they didn't have the means to provide lessons.
Yet Valerie's fascination with horses had taken root before she started school.
Her earliest years were spent in a suburban subdivision in Fresno, California. When she was seven, the family relocated to Wichita, Kansas. Both her parents, however, were originally from upstate New
York, where an uncle ran a big dairy farm. Valerie loved it. Her uncle, she
remembers, "worked the cows and had some hired hands. I used to die to be
out on the farms. Even though there were no horses, there was still a farm. So
I always had that thing somewhere in my blood."
In Kansas as in California, Valerie's family lived in suburbia, far from horse pastures or stables. The goal of riding was rarely far from Valerie's mind, however. She fell in love with Walter Farley's Black
Stallion books. While still in elementary school, she started a newspaper
route, babysat, did odd jobs, and saved her money. By age eleven, she had
enough money to buy herself a gray mare, probably a Quarter Horse cross, for
$150. From then on the 35 cents an hour she made babysitting and the money from
her paper route went toward paying the $35 a month board. "There was no
extra money for lessons," she says, and besides, "I don't know who I
would have taken lessons with. I was just a kid in the backyard."
As a young child, while still in California, Valerie contracted such a serious case of polio that she refers to her recovery as "one of those miracle cases." As far as she knows, she has had no
residual effects from the disease, although she thinks about it when she's
exceedingly tired for no apparent reason.
In Wichita, Valerie was an active, athletic child who excelled at swimming. Her suburban subdivision had a swim club in the summer; she swam on the boys' team as well as the girls' because there weren't
enough boys competing. She also played tennis and baseball. Horses, however,
were number one. Her bemused parents could not offer financial support, but they
didn't stand in her way either. Being a suburban kid, she didn’t have horsey
friends, but joined 4-H, so was introduced to local horse shows there.
The day she turned sixteen and could get a driver's license, she purchased a trailer she could take to horse shows. "I can't believe I did that," she says now. "A kid driving a horse trailer . .
. Ignorance is bliss. If you don't know what you don't know, then you think you
know. You just do it." Valerie remembers a “big ole grey Studebaker” that
her father found for her, but it’s hard to imagine how that vehicle could pull
a trailer and horse.
Valerie reached the upper echelons of her sport with no formal training, but at every step of the way she was listening, learning, looking for what she needed to know. The more I learned, the more I
did, the more I picked people's brains," she says. "If I had a
problem, I would figure out how to solve it or whom I could get the information
from that could solve it for me. There's a lot of resources out there.
In the mid-1990s, already a World Cup gold medalist, [in endurance racing] she started working with Donna Snyder-Smith, who has become Valerie's mentor and trainer. From her Valerie has learned much about
balance, control, and communication with the horse.
"I had a horse that was very powerful, but when I got on him, there was no power from back in the engine," Valerie recalls. "I didn't know how to activate it, and all of a sudden I realized
I'd just been a passenger sitting on him. I didn't actually know how to use
seat and legs and hands. That was a big change. You could have two lifetimes
and still not learn everything. I was pretty successful just doing what I was
doing, but then all of a sudden I ran into a horse that required something
different, and had to figure it out. A big eye-opener."